I have spent the last week calling around the state to listen to voters, candidates and organizers. There are many more calls to make, but a few things are coming into focus.
First, we should remember that we protected 11 of the 12 State House seats that we won in 2018. Those were historically Republican districts, and it was no small feat to stave off the millions of dollars spent to retake them. Likewise for our two congressional pickups from 2018. Colin Allred and Lizzie Fletcher are both returning to the U.S. House. We also saw Joe Biden improve nearly 4 points over Hillary Clinton’s performance from 2016. That was the best showing by a Democratic nominee in Texas in 24 years.
However, we lost every challenger Congressional race and every challenger State House race except for one. And we didn’t come nearly close enough to winning statewide — Presidential, Senate or otherwise. It’s important that we understand why, so that we can do much better next time.
Some thoughts based on conversations from this week:
The asymmetrical advantage that Trump and the GOP had this cycle in Texas is far more powerful than many of us understood. And I think it begins to explain Republicans’ incredible performance on Tuesday night.
The ability to campaign free of the truth (examples abound, especially along the border, of social media and texting campaigns that trafficked in lies and scare tactics); a far more compelling economic message (not an honest one or better in terms of policy, but simpler, more emotional and more compelling); a willingness to knock on doors and hold in-person events through the duration of the pandemic (when almost no Democrat did the same); the ability to use dominance in government (Republicans hold every statewide office) to maximize voter suppression and raise and deploy massive campaign donations across the state; and the power of the national race to produce record turnout without having the Democratic ticket make a meaningful investment in Texas, were all factors that contributed to GOP and Trump success in our state.
The fact that the border, from the Rio Grande Valley to El Paso, has been ignored for years by the national party, and even many statewide Democratic candidates, hurt us badly. The failure to invest in year-round canvassing — so that voters don’t just hear from us during an election — also made it harder for us to move voters at the end. Coupled with the effective disinformation campaign conducted via text and social media by the GOP and the very dire economic circumstances that made people more receptive to the direct economic message of the GOP (Biden will kill your oil and gas jobs; Trump will save them. Biden will close down the economy; Trump will reopen it. etc.), this begins to explain Trump’s phenomenal performance in Texas border counties, counties that happen to be 85% to 95% Mexican-American.
Some lessons that should inform future work that I take from all of this (with the understanding that we still don’t have a final, clear picture on the Texas election, and that there are many more people to whom we must reach out and listen):
- Nothing beats meeting your voters, eyeball to eyeball. We should always find a way to canvass directly at the voter’s door. There is a safe way to do this, even in a pandemic.
- We should be talking to voters year-round. Not just the quick hits to determine partisanship or gain a commitment to vote or to turn someone out to vote. We should be having open-ended conversations with voters about what is important to them, to us, throughout the year, every year. Organizations like the Texas Organizing Project (TOP) have been doing this and have been winning races in places like Harris County. We should learn from them.
- The central messaging that many Democratic candidates felt obligated to adopt (because they believed that funding and other support from Democratic organizations was contingent on it) doesn’t work. If you’re running for office you should know why, and you should be able to articulate that. You should also be constantly talking to and listening to the people in your district to understand their needs, concerns, hopes and dreams. Understand why your victory would be their victory. If your “why” and their “why” are not reflected in your own words, that you came up with yourself, then you’re not going to connect with voters. People are smart. They smell a focus group-tested message, talking points derived from polls, a campaign driven by consultants, from a mile away.
- We have to be far more effective on digital and social media. The anecdotal takeaway from those I’ve listened to, especially in border communities, is that Trump/GOP had a ferocious game (lies and powerful memes, effective targeting of new and young voters) and we had none.
- We’ve got to show up everywhere, be there for everyone — especially the places that are hard to get to. Especially for those whose votes have been taken for granted in the past. El Paso, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, Laredo, Roma, Edinburg, McAllen, Brownsville. “So what if Trump is a bad guy, what are you bringing to the table?”
- And we can’t write anyone off. Those courageous candidates who ran in East Texas. Those organizers who are still at it in the Panhandle. Those voters who want someone whose going to fight for them in the Permian Basin, we’ve got to show up for them too. We aren’t going to win many of those districts next cycle, but we’ll NEVER win them if we don’t start showing up and investing now.
None of this is easy. But it’s doable if we decide that we’re willing to put in the work, if we’re willing to believe in ourselves and act our faith.
Thanks again for being part of this effort. Grateful to be doing this with you.
Editor’s Note: The above commentary was penned by former Congressman and founder of the Powered By People group Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from El Paso, in a letter he sent to supporters on Nov. 12, 2020.
Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows former El Paso Congressman Beto O’Rourke holding a rally at Sholz Garden in Austin. (Photo: Michael Minasi for KUT)
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